The Experience of Losing a Parent
By: Beth McHugh 2006
Unless we die early in life, we all go through the process of losing a parent. When our mother or father dies, it is a truly unique experience because, unlike with other people, in most cases we have literally known our parents all our lives. We know of no existence without our parents being there. And that is why losing a parent can be such a traumatic ordeal for many people.
Whether we lose a parent when we are young or our parent reaches a great age and we are almost elderly ourselves, the death of a parent is still a milestone in our lives. It is a rite of passage. Suddenly we are the ones holding the baton, there is no generation above us in our family tree still living.
If our parent dies when we are still in our childhood or teen years, we usually are acknowledged as having suffered a great emotion upheaval in our life. And we have. Yet even if we are 60 and our parent of 85 dies, we still experience a blow to the psyche. Even when the death is expected, either through old age or chronic illness, death is still death. And our mother or father has departed forever. And to those who would say to us that our elderly parent has had a good and long life, our adult self might nod in agreement, yet our inner child screams “No! My Dad’s just died!”
Further complications arise on the death of the second parent. You have already weathered the death of either your mother or father, but finally the time comes when your last parent dies. This can often be a very difficult experience for a “child” of any age, either six or sixty. In fact, the phenomenon even has a name: “The Orphan Syndrome.” Many adults deal quite well with the death of the first parent, but the second departure can destabilize the person, often for months.
Consciously, the person is aware that both parents are gone, and that they, the “child,” can never go back “home” again, even if they themselves might own a mansion. There no longer exists a household where there will always be an open door policy. They must grow up, they are on their own; there is no safely net now.
Unconsciously, there is a fear in the newly-bereaved of their own mortality. They may have watched their grandparents die, then aunts, uncles, and now, their parents. Soon it will be their time. However, all these thoughts and the feelings that accompany them are normal and are experienced by the majority of people who lose a parent. If you experience these feelings yourself, rest assured that they are to be expected and they will pass. They are a normal and healthy part of the grieving process.